Bradstreet Crafthouse recreates cocktail culture

Parting is such sweet sorrow: The Juliet and Romeo

Parting is such sweet sorrow: The Juliet and Romeo

The first thing you'll probably wonder about the drinks at Bradstreet Craftshouse is why they're taking so long to make. On busy nights, the wait can be lengthy enough that someone in your party will start speculating as to why they haven't yet arrived. What are they doing? Adding ingredients with eyedroppers? Actually, yes.

Bradstreet's bartenders treat each drink as a work of art. The Dark and Stormy's brooding layers of light and dark rums bleed together so beautifully that the drink looks like a Rothko painting poured into a glass. In the Negroni Tredici cocktail, a large, whimsical ice orb spins and sparkles like a drunken disco ball. And when the server grates nutmeg on top of the Minneapolis Flip, a boozy nog made with a whole raw egg, we lean in to inhale its woodsy scent—intoxicated already.

Bradstreet Craftshouse, the new retro lounge in the Graves Hotel, is raising the bar for Twin Cities cocktail culture. Expanding on the craft developed at places like Strip Club, Town Talk Diner, Prohibition, and La Belle Vie—pairing scratch-made juices, syrups, bitters, and tonics with top-quality liquors—hotel owner Ben Graves brought in New York-based Alchemy Consulting to shake things up even more.

Alchemy partner Toby Maloney has agitated so many cocktails that he says he can tell how many ice cubes are in a shaker just by ear. Having tended bar at New York hotspots Milk & Honey and Pegu Club, Maloney is something of a cocktail obsessive. Not only does he co-own the renowned Violet Hour bar in Chicago, but he also consults for Diageo, the world's largest liquor conglomerate. "If you're not making cocktails, you're researching cocktails, or you're drinking someone else's cocktails, or you're dreaming about cocktails," he says. "It takes over your life—in a good way."

Bradstreet Craftshouse, in the former home of Infinity nightclub, has been designed to match Maloney's retro minimalist bartending approach of taking classic drinks and tweaking them a bit. It's named after the Minneapolis Craftshouse, a showroom and museum for the decorative arts that was opened in 1904 by the city's most influential tastemaker of the time, a designer named John Scott Bradstreet. While several recent high-profile architecture projects have drawn national attention to the Twin Cities' rich arts and culture scene, Bradstreet's "striking" and "go-ahead" establishment, as one reviewer described it, was perhaps what initially put Minneapolis on the map as a creative hotbed.

Bradstreet was fond of a Japanese wood-finishing technique that emphasizes the decorative patterns of the grain, and that look is echoed in the striking silhouettes on the restaurant's light fixtures and liquor shelves. Rust-colored walls, bamboo wallpaper, and stone tabletops make the space feel modern yet organic, and the divided seating areas—a small dining room, barstools, kitchen-side seats, and a boudoir-esque lounge—give it a pleasant intimacy. I may not have been there late enough (they're open till 2 a.m.) to encounter the nightlife crowd I expected, though one evening I did spot Azia owner Thom Pham among the contingent of hotel guests, including a middle-aged business guy with a heavy Southern accent who started demonstrating his abdominal workout routine to his companion.

An old-fashioned with a newfangled ice cube

An old-fashioned with a newfangled ice cube

Maybe he'd had a little too much to drink—which is easy to do with a beverage menu as tempting as Bradstreet's. Cocktails are sorted by spirit type and listed from most accessible to most complex, with far more based on rye whiskey than vodka, as was typical pre-Prohibition. There are drinks that seem designed to sip while having a pedicure—like the Cooper's Union, a refreshing blend of Prairie Organic vodka, elderflower liqueur, citrus juices, and orange flower water—and those more suited for smoking a cigar—the Winter Sazerac, with Wild Turkey rye whiskey, brown-sugar-coffee syrup, and absinthe. (Our dapper, mustachioed waiter described it as being "the real deal," and boy was he right.)

Bradstreet's cocktail philosophy takes every detail seriously. For instance, the bar's "ice program" consists of five types of ice used to precisely hone the drink's temperature and dilution. "Just saying the word 'ice program' is the most pretentious thing in the world," Maloney admits, but he explains that bartenders need different techniques for cooling drinks just as chefs do for heating foods. Bradstreet invested in several specialized machines to freeze and shape ice: The Kold-Draft makes purer, denser (and therefore colder) cubes, and the Japanese-made Taisin melts large ice squares into spheres. The custom-made ice makes the drinks not only more elegant but more consistent.

Since taste relies heavily on smell, many of Bradstreet's cocktails emphasize aromatics. For some, the server applies bitters with an eyedropper just before the drink is sipped. Bradstreet takes its bitters so seriously, in fact, that they stock three types of orange bitters, all with slightly different flavor profiles. Maloney plans to make new bitters with each season, so wintry clove-nutmeg-allspice notes will be replaced with those of blackberry and cherry blossoms this spring.

The mere concept of extra-cold ice or seasonal bitters is likely new to most Twin Cities drinkers. ("Often people won't know one single ingredient in the drink," Maloney says.) Fortunately, Bradstreet's extensive staff training, which involves tasting each drink and its individual elements, seems to have paid off. The staff members I encountered were well versed in describing flavors, defining unusual liquors (such as the artichoke aperitif cynar, or a Douglas fir eau de vie), and explaining the process by which the bar makes its own grenadine syrup.

The result of these efforts is that drinks tend to be as novel and well-balanced as the signature Bradstreet, a frothy mix of Jim Beam Rye, lemon, jasmine syrup, egg whites, and bitters. The flavors stay light, yet are alluring enough to retain interest until the last of the accompanying sidecar is finished. And despite all the labor that goes into the drinks—it takes about two minutes to shape each of those ice spheres—the specialty cocktails are all priced at a reasonable $10. While a $7 nonalcoholic beverage called Art of the Crafts came in a glass so tiny it looked like a toy in the hands of a man, its subtle mix of ginger, lime, and jasmine was tasty enough to stand up to its alcoholic brethren. Bradstreet's novel wine list is also priced extremely affordably—a $3 pour that's not Carlo Rossi?—perhaps to save the bartenders' shoulders from repetitive stress injuries.

Once all that cocktailian education starts to make you hungry, chef Jesse Spitzack offers a globally inspired small-plates menu, which he created with the help of Graves' recently departed executive chef Stephen Trojahn. Spitzack presents his upscale, tapas-for-gastronomes on tableware as sleek and white as gallery walls. The plates are all less than $10, but most portions are small, so you'll need several to amass a full dinner.

The wait staff typically does a nice job of explaining each plate as it's delivered. Some don't require much, such as plates of thin-sliced serrano or speck ham garnished with mustard or pickled beet. Or the super-crisp polenta fries meant to be double-dipped in a roasted-pepper pesto and parsley-mint gremolata. Other plates, such as the foie gras bon bons, call for more description. The liver is wrapped in thin potato strips and fried (they taste like a potato-chip ball with a luxurious center), balanced by kumquat marmalade and apple chips. There are only two bon bons per plate, so if you're not dining by yourself, I'd recommend more than one order.

Several of Spitzack's plates put a haute twist on street food or bar snacks, including peppery-hot duck wings with piña colada mayonnaise, lamb ribs with soy-sesame glaze, and oyster spring rolls served with Parmesan sorbet (cool in theory, weird in reality). Sliders come in three variations—salmon, beef, or lamb—the best of which were the spicy lamb with tzatziki sauce. (The grass-fed meat seemed a little lean for those accustomed to the butter-bombs at Lurcat, and the salmon felt mismatched with the homemade ketchup and pickled onion condiments.)

Among the seafood selections, I especially liked the pan-seared scallops paired with a crispy croquette and bitter orange sauce. The crab-potato cakes were better than most, perfectly complemented with strips of roasted poblano pepper and lemon confit. And the ceviche was an unusual yet likeable preparation, dressed with a spicy green curry and sweet watermelon foam, then topped with crisp bits of fried skin. Vegetarians don't have a lot of options, so they probably won't want to share the Portobello salad with fried garlic chips or the tempura vegetables.

Desserts bear the creative imprint of their creator, Cosmos restaurant's pastry chef Khanh Tran, whose bold flavor pairings shine in dishes like the flourless chocolate cake with sesame ice cream and sesame seed tuille. I liked the concept of the banana tapioca pudding, but its execution was off: The large pearls had uncooked, chalky centers, and the grayish, barely sweet pudding reminded me of orphanage gruel; the accompanying sticky rice balls were dry and crunchy. Lacking the creamy, sweet coconut flavor I'd anticipated, the dish tasted hopelessly...vegan. But the Moscato Gelee Float was a tiny tumbler of perfection: a wine Jell-O shot topped with fresh raspberries, a scoop of lemon gelato, and a spritz of foamy limeade soda that was as refreshing as a summer swim.

Spitzack says his team is in the process of paring down the menu a bit—which seems like a good idea considering the variety of ingredients and prep work required for all the dishes. I'd cut the chicken soup with rice noodles, as its broth tasted only of heat, with none of the depth of a pho. Ditto the grilled calamari, which wasn't as smoky or citrusy as I'd hoped. And while the pasta nachos were interesting—deep-fried strips that puff up like a pizza crust—after they cooled the chips turned tough, and the melted cheese became as goopy as oil-based paint.

Those unsuccessful plates didn't mar the experience as much as the restaurant's location-related logistical challenges. Parking and using the facilities were significant inconveniences (not to mention expensive—the valet costs $15). When my friend returned from the closest restroom—up on the fourth floor, next to Cosmos—she pointed to my Wild Turkey cocktail and remarked, "If you had two of those and had to hurl, you'd never make it."

That's not exactly the best way to experience Bradstreet. Instead, I'd recommend thinking of the bar as a sushi counter, taking a seat at one of the stools, and handing yourself over, omakase style. And when you discover a drink you particularly love, pay it forward at Bradstreet's cute little typewriter desk. Buy a cocktail for a friend, then type a note, tack it to the bulletin board, and tell them to come by and redeem it.